At sunrise one Friday in late Spring, I squeezed through a fence by Shubra metro station and headed along the train tracks towards Alexandria. Over my shoulder was a bag full of water and date biscuits, beside me was my friend Shorok and ahead of us spread the Nile Delta.
Our feet soon tired of the unforgiving gravel, so we crossed over to a path that ran alongside fields of mint. A woman who was tying small bundles of the stuff cocked her head as we passed: “What are you? Journalists?” she laughed to herself as we marched on.
Several hours later, we approached a group of workers and in the full boldness of thirst asked for some tea. A woman sitting cross-legged by a water pump gestured for us to sit down and wash our feet. Her daughter, a girl of about eighteen, sat gently rocking a baby in her arms.
The girl’s husband arrived with a load of mint on his back, he said hello and set about making a fire. An old man emerged from the field on a donkey, took off his trousers and settled down to air his boxers. Whilst the tea was brewing on the embers the girl brought us some potent old cheese, which we ate with bread fresh off the fire; it was delicious.
Towards mid-afternoon, we arrived at a village surrounded by a tangle of streams and orange groves and lay down for a while eating berries under a tree. Three camels stood on a pick-up truck across the road watching us and chewed their teeth.
We found our way back through the oranges and settled in to an early-evening game of spot the water buffalo. I forget who won, but we soon ran out of water. The sky was turning a crimson red and we’d been walking next to a stream for a while with no sign of a way back to the main road.
After some uneasy hours in the gloom where every bush looked like a gang of bandits, a man on a scooter appeared and offered to drop us off at the next bridge. He saw us safely across and we regrouped at a café, tending to blisters and eating some chicken, before we set off for the last stretch of the day.
Banha’s only hotel, we discovered on arrival, had been turned into an apartment block several years before. Somewhat disheartened by this, we killed time in a café opposite the train station, watching sour-faced men pushing backgammon counters. I used the loo which was a small cubicle in the middle of the room with a gaping hole at bum level.
The train station threw us out for trying to sleep on the platform, as did another café, before we were rescued by a man at a kebab restaurant who’d been watching us pacing up and down all evening. He pulled up two chairs on the pavement and brought us some tea and food.
We engorged ourselves on kebab then fought the overpowering urge to fall asleep right there in the street. Thankfully, the mosque across the road was about to open and the imam agreed to let us sleep inside until dawn. We tried our best to convey our sincere gratitude through squinty eyes and greasy hands.
I awoke to a gentle tug on my shoulder and looked up into the pitying eyes of an elderly man offering me 100 Egyptian pounds. I refused to take it, he asked if everything was all right then nodded and returned to his prayers.
The sun was rising sluggishly over the river as we left Banha. Once on the other side, we entered a maze of alleyways empty save for a few women preparing fruit stalls and cats yawning outside butcher’s shops. We found our way back to the railway, devoured some fuul sandwiches at a road-side cart and basked in the early morning breeze.
That morning was nothing but mile after mile of dusty tarmac and roadside litter. By noon we had walked nearly 45 miles since Cairo on just one hour’s sleep. In a blurred daze, we shuffled up to a mosque and asked if we could rest inside. A sheikh looked us up and down then, after a long pause, said that we could come in and sleep until after midday prayers.
Our afternoon route criss-crossed the train line between the main road and parallel dirt tracks that were full of sheep and geese. Whilst running to avoid one such gaggle we strayed into a farmyard and surprised a family sat round a fire. A woman, overhearing our arrival, came running out of the house in a flurry of dresses and shawls and smothered us in berries and smiles.
They shared their stories about the wheat harvest and discussed the future of the youngest son, Shawqi, who dreamed of becoming a chef. I toured the fields on a tractor as it cut and bound the wheat into neat bundles, sat in silence as the machine hummed, whirred and broke down whenever too much wheat got stuck in its claws.
For the rest of the afternoon we followed the railway, counting the sleepers and screaming like excited children whenever we reached a hundred. I got to nearly one thousand before the straight lines began to shimmer and jump out my dehydrated mind. Just enough trains roared passed to keep us awake.
At a level crossing we watched the sun shimmer in the distance with three soldiers wearing over-sized leather jackets. When they spoke they shouted, and after telling us off for walking on the railway they insisted we eat roast duck with them. We lay back against the small hut which was their office, sipping from a single cup of soul-warming tea and wishing the sunset would last forever.
Darkness had fallen by the time we approached the checkpoint just outside Tanta. Two police officers checked our papers:
“Are you convinced by what you are doing?”
I rolled the question around in my head.
“Yes, we are convinced thank you very much. So, we can go?”
“No, it’s too dangerous to walk to Tanta.”
The officer stopped a taxi and told the driver to take us to Tanta, which he did, leaving us on the wrong side of the main road one mile from the centre. We had no option but to hobble on.
Every hotel I tried either refused me for being foreign or quadrupled the price. We wondered aimlessly around the town centre for a bit then slumped by a fountain in front of Sayid al-Bedawi Mosque feeling pretty stupid. A man unzipped his trousers and began to relieve himself against the wall.
The growing stench brought us back to our senses. As the cloud of despair slowly lifted, we looked at each other, content to have walked out the front door with nothing but naïve expectations of the road ahead. It was in this serene state of exhaustion that we returned to Cairo, the miserable whiff of urine a mere detail in the dust.
This travel writing piece was the winner of the 2018 Travel Writing Competition which was done in collaboration with Travel Garage, Egypt‘s must-go to online store for purchasing adventure and travel goodies.